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Sports star aims for new heights as ROTC student at ASU

Savannah Cunningham at ASU fitness center

Savannah Cunningham — who has long had a passion for sports — will soon be known as Midshipman Cunningham when she begins her freshman year in the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps this fall at Arizona State University.

August 18, 2015

Editor's note: This story is part of our back-to-school spotlight on notable incoming students. The series will run during the first two weeks of the fall semester. Read our other profiles here.

Savannah Cunningham reaches into her bag and pulls out her smartphone. Unlike many young women her age, 18, its case doesn’t feature an ornate, flowery pattern or shimmery rhinestones. It is emblazoned with the official logo of the United States Marine Corps.

“I was always the competitive kid that would run around, play football with the guys. I was never one to sit with all the chicks and gossip. That wasn’t me,” says the native of the Ahwatukee area of Phoenix.

But, she contends, “I do have a girly side to me too, though. I’m not just like this macho female.”

She laughs then, something she does often, and tucks a strand of long, blond hair behind her ear.

Cunningham will soon be known as Midshipman Cunningham when she begins her freshman year in the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) this fall at Arizona State University.

Though she always received good grades at Horizon Honors High School, Cunningham’s heart was in athletics. She was the captain of her soccer and volleyball teams – the latter of which won state one year – and also ran track and field, where she placed at state. In her free time, she gave private swimming lessons.

Despite her passion for sports, Cunningham was unsure what her next step would be after high school.

“To be honest, for the longest time I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life,” she admits.

Then, the day she went to take her driver’s license test she noticed a service member in front of her in line.

“For some reason, that just sparked an interest, and I started researching, looking at different branches [of the U.S. Armed Forces], and the Marine Corps really stood out to me,” Cunningham recalls.

Perhaps surprisingly, she doesn’t have any immediate relatives in the Armed Forces. However, her grandfather was in the Air Force, and she says her great-great-great-grandfather is General John J. Pershing, who led the American Expeditionary Forces to victory over Germany in World War I.

“So I kind of have that background, but not directly,” she says. “So I’m the first Marine in the family. And female!”

Now with a plan for her future in place, the next step was convincing her parents, both former Sun Devils, that it was a good idea. Being awarded an NROTC scholarship to attend ASU helped.

After receiving high marks on her ASMAT (Armed Services Military Accession Test) — “It’s basically like the entrance test into the military,” she says — Cunningham was encouraged to apply for the scholarship. The application process was “intense” and required her to craft a professional resume, write two personal essays and participate in three officer interviews — beginning with a lieutenant, then progressing to a colonel and finally a general.

“If you didn’t pass the lieutenant, you didn’t get the scholarship. So it was a big deal,” she says.

But her perseverance paid off, and not only did Cunningham make it all the way to the interview with the general, but she was awarded a full ride to ASU.

“I cried when I found out because I don’t have to pay for college; I don’t have to worry about student-loan debt. It’s a good feeling,” she says.

At ASU, Cunningham will major in geography with a concentration in meteorology-climatology and hopes to one day use that knowledge as a helicopter pilot or intelligence personnel. She cites a scene from 2007’s “Transformers” in which Pentagon officials provide remote tactical aid to U.S. troops battling rogue machines as a fantasy version of her “dream” job.

Cunningham also plans to carve out time between her studies and NROTC obligations to play intramural sports at ASU.

“I want to play volleyball, soccer and I really want to play dodgeball,” she gushes.

At the moment, though, she’s most looking forward to relinquishing her responsibilities as the eldest of four siblings and enjoying some time to herself as just another college kid in her dorm room at Manzanita Hall.

“I’m just excited to have my own independence. And I’m so pumped to move in!”